When I was growing up in the North End there were dozens of these stores and every family had its favorite. My grandmother, Colomba, liked Johnny Gaeta’s store on Salem Street near the corner of Prince because he would deliver groceries and she could play the daily number with the delivery boy (ragazzo). When we moved to Lewis Street my mother used Sammy Scolas on North Street or Iacopucci’s on Fleet. When you bought prosciutto at Iacopucci’s they would slice it by hand with a long sharp knife, just like in Italy.
Martignetti’s on Salem Street was the largest Italian grocery store and was so crowded on Saturdays you could hardly get in the front door. Martignettis also sold wine and my grandfather, Vito, would always have a gallon of Carlo Rossi red in the ice box. He would dip his finger into his glass and let me suck the wine when I was just a toddler. Great remedy for a teething infant.
Look at the products available in the picture. On the right are various salumi and a big provolone cheese hanging from a ceiling hook. The electric slicer stands ready to help make a sandwich or slice some cold cuts to go. On the back wall you can see bottles of wine vinegar, honey and olive oil as well as cans of beans, capers, olives; all the things needed to cook a meal. There are sacks of polenta and rice and boxes of laundry detergent, items necessary for day to day life. In our little North End village women shopped every day and the items available in stores like this were ideally suited for our peasant life and diet. I never recall seeing tourists in any of these shops.
We still have Italian grocery shops in the North End and I love shopping in them but the merchandise they carry is very different and much more expensive. I enjoy teasing Guy Martignetti who owns Salumeria Italiana on Richmond St about the precious balsamic vinegar he sells in small perfume bottles that cost more than a week’s groceries in 1955. My mother and grandmother only used Gargano wine vinegar imported in bulk from Puglia. It was so acidic it would take the rust off nails but there was nothing more delicious than a salad of scarola (curly escarole), tomatoes, Filippo Berio olive oil and Gargano vinegar.
I don’t know the name of the store in this picture and I would appreciate it if someone could identify it. Quiz. What is the young man carrying on his head?
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.